As we approach 400 days since Ukraine was invaded by Russia on 24 February last year, football has become one of the few things that can disconnect the nation from the horror and despair. On Sunday, at Wembley, Ukraine take on England to start their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign, having just missed out on the World Cup in Qatar with a play-off final defeat by Wales.
Saying that the importance of this game goes beyond the result itself though is a massive understatement, as the people of Ukraine and those at war look to pause their darkest thoughts for two hours of footballing hope. “Football is still the number one sport in Ukraine and it’s helping people cope with what they’re going through,” former Ukraine striker and manager Andriy Shevchenko told BBC Sport. “The league was kept alive, a few teams made it in Europe, that helped a lot.”
More than 1,000 tickets will be given to Ukrainians and the British families who have welcomed them to watch the qualifier at Wembley, with around 4,200 Ukraine fans having bought standard tickets in what will be a sell-out crowd in excess of 85,000. Through public statements, many of the Ukraine players and the national team caretaker manager, Ruslan Rotan, have shown their gratitude for the support they have received from the United Kingdom.
Shevchenko, a Ballon d’Or winner who scored 48 goals in 111 appearances for his country, has been helping with the humanitarian aid effort from his London home and still has close family living in Ukraine. “England has been extraordinarily supportive over the past year. They have shown solidarity and kindness,” he said. “I think the atmosphere will be very emotional and warm toward the Ukrainian fans and the team. From the UK government to the civil society, we’ve been shown big support since the start of the war.